The Enemy in Our Hands: America's Treatment of Enemy Prisoners of War, from the Revolution to the War on Terror

By Robert C. Doyle | Go to book overview

NINE
Pensionierte Wehrmacht
German and Italian POWs and Internees
in the United States

Vexed and quarrelsome because of hunger and thirst, we are
tormented spiritually because of the uncertainty and chaos that
threaten to break out at any moment.

—Helmut Hörner

Never in the history of warfare were so many human beings held behind barbed wire as during World War II (1939–1945). Categories abound: prisoners of war, internees, political prisoners, Holocaust prisoners from various countries, war criminals, disarmed enemy personnel, and prisoners of state. More than 10 million German soldiers were held as prisoners in twenty countries during and after World War II. Between 1942 and 1946 the U.S. Army held over 425,000 German, 50,000 Italian, and 5,000 Japanese prisoners in some 500 prison camps throughout the United States.1 Beginning in 1943 with the surrender of the Afrika Korps to the British and Americans in Tunisia and then thousands of German soldiers to the Allies in France after the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, the numbers escalated until the entire Wehrmacht surrendered in May 1945.

As Helmut Hörner describes in his memoir A German Odyssey, the Americans created prison pens in France in 1944 but failed to feed their prisoners properly. Hunger, not the American guards, became the enemy. He recalled, “Like stupid, sick animals we squat or lie with sunken cheeks in our places. No reasonable word passes from our lips. Vexed and quarrelsome because of hunger and thirst, we are tormented spiritually because of the uncertainty and chaos that threaten to break out at any moment.” In his tent, a paratrooper screamed, “Dear God in heaven, have mercy on us!”2 In colonial times, it had been known as the “starving time”; in the European prison pens, a similar experience was imposed on recent captures. American field rations eventually reached the Germans, and although they suffered a great deal from hunger, the situation slowly stabilized, and in time they were shipped to the

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